Research ArticleNosocomial Infection

Tracking a Hospital Outbreak of Carbapenem-Resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae with Whole-Genome Sequencing

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Science Translational Medicine  22 Aug 2012:
Vol. 4, Issue 148, pp. 148ra116
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3004129

A Detective Story

Some infections are largely a thing of the past—plague, syphilis. The unfortunate result of these antibiotic-driven successes is the emergence of drug-resistant pathogens. And, ironically enough, hospitals are at the center of the problem. An example of this occurred in 2011 at the Clinical Center of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), in which an outbreak of drug-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae infected 18 patients, causing the death of 6 of them. Using a combination of whole-genome sequencing and patient tracking, Snitkin and his colleagues examined how the bacteria was spreading through the hospital. The results outline a complicated path of transmission within the hospital that defied standard containment methods, yielding lessons for the future.

A patient known to be infected with a drug-resistant form of K. pneumoniae was admitted to the NIH Clinical Center on 13 June 2011. Enhanced isolation procedures were immediately implemented, and no spread of the bacteria was seen for the month she was in the hospital. Although all seemed well, a few weeks later on August 5th, a second infected patient was discovered, followed by a series of other patients with infection or colonization—about 1 a week to a total of 18 by the end of 2011. Six people ultimately died as a result of the bacteria. The outbreak was finally contained by rigorous control procedures.

A careful survey of the bed locations of each patient did not shed much light on how the bacteria traveled on its deadly path: The first patient did not even come into contact with any of the others. So the authors performed whole-genome sequencing on all of the bacteria that were found, determining the most likely evolutionary relationships among them by comparing the variations at single nucleotides that arise as bacteria grow. Combining this evolutionary information with the physical tracking of the patients pointed to the most likely transmission scenario.

The authors concluded that all of the K. pneumoniae cases likely originated with the index patient, from at least two different sites on her body, rather than by independently introduced bacteria. There were at least three different initial transmission events. Particularly disturbing was the fact that one of the infections could be linked to contamination of a ventilator that had been cleaned by thorough methods.

Sophisticated deployment of whole-genome sequencing revealed the weaknesses in this medical who-done-it, informing improvements in hospital preventive measures. If applied rapidly, such analysis can even expose the causes of nosocomial infections in real time.